I've read many times that left and right in politics come from the French Revolution.

But reading the Dao De Jing, chapter 31, it looks a very similar definition.

The left is the place of the "second commander", the "ordinary", the "folk", the "festivities".

The right is the place of "war", "first commander" closer to the king, the "mourning" and elaborate/artificial/sad rituals of the noble families.

Other translations get to an even closer resemblance.

So, is this just a coincidence? Or perhaps both sources (Chinese and French) have drank from the same spring? Where exactly the concepts of left and right in politics were first used in a way similar to those we use today?

  • 2
    I wonder if this wasn't a question more appropriate for either Politics.SE or History.SE...
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 21, 2016 at 8:08
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    This might be purely coincidental, but to add to the fun: In Islam, the right side is the "good" side, and the left side is the "sinful" side. Nov 21, 2016 at 8:12
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    Apparently 90% of the world is right-handed. Chinese and French. Nov 21, 2016 at 12:51
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    @PhilipKlöcking I expect it would come back as political theory/philosophy. Nov 21, 2016 at 12:53
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    'He is seated at the right hand of the Father' is embedded in the Nicene creed, so the idea of placing those favored by authorities to their right seems to go back much farther than the French Revolution in the West.
    – user9166
    Nov 21, 2016 at 23:56

3 Answers 3


Society naturally divides into authoritarians and liberals. The reason is, everyone starts out as authoritarian, following instruction from parents and teachers. (Authoritarian does not mean being bossy or socially dominant (SD); it means following authority.)

Later in life, upon entering adulthood, some people self-actualise, individuate, start thinking more independently, become free-thinkers. (The process is a difficult wrench because the automatic follow-the-leader instincts and peer pressure have to be wrestled with.)

People who are free-thinkers tend to let others get on with their own thing: a generally liberal attitude. Authoritarians generally stick to their chosen authority base.

Professor Bob Altemeyer devised a psychological test to measure right-wing authoritarianism (RWA),. He managed to get US politicians to take the test, the results from which are shown below, (and here, page 201). The scoring showed that the right-wing tended to cluster to their authority-bound attitudes while the left were more distributed across the spectrum, following their own ideas, however varied they were.

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Autoritarian versus liberal is not the only division in politics. There is also an economic dimension. The Political Compass is a good site for finding out about this.


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The Political Compass puts the terms left and right on the economic axis saying:

Our essential point is that Left and Right, although far from obsolete, are essentially a measure of economics.

However, in its origin, and still to a large extent today, I would say, left and right relate to the social authoritarian-liberal spectrum. In the French Revolution the right were the authority loyalists and the left were the ones with new ideas. There was also a respective dimension of wealth preservation and wealth redistribution though.

Wikipedia: Left-right politics

The terms "left" and "right" appeared during the French Revolution of 1789 when members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king to the president's right and supporters of the revolution to his left.

Presumably the rebels were placed on the establishment's left side, the "sinister" (sinistro) side, for nuanced effect, while the authoritarian loyalists were on the honoured right.

By contrast, in reference to the Tâo Te Ching, Chapter 31, C. Spurgeon Medhurst (trans.) writes:

The references to the right and the left will be understood when it is remembered that in China the left is the seat of honor, the right the lower and inferior seat.

So in China the esteem of left and right is opposite to that in the Roman and Western world, indicating no common source.

  • I think this would be better off on the politics site. Either way, brilliant question.
    – user24113
    Nov 21, 2016 at 11:49
  • Thanks for the answer, Chris. I knew about the Political Compass, but what I'm interested here is in the impressive relation between the French and Old Chinese Left/Right terms. As you and others have noted, it may have its origin in the biological dominance of right-handedness. But is this all there is to it?
    – Rodrigo
    Nov 21, 2016 at 17:47
  • @Rodrigo: if that's what you're interested in you should say so explicitly. it's not what you asked originally.
    – user20153
    Nov 22, 2016 at 1:05
  • @mobileink It's in the end of my question: "is this just a coincidence? Or perhaps both sources (Chinese and French) have drank from the same spring?" Although Chris' answer is interesting, it didn't answer the origin of the concepts (only again the French). But if the Chinese used a similar concept 2500 years ago, then the mystery remains.
    – Rodrigo
    Nov 22, 2016 at 1:22
  • @Rodrigo Apparently it follows the opposite pattern in Taoism. The notes to Chapter 31 say: "in China the left is the seat of honor, the right the lower and inferior seat." Nov 22, 2016 at 7:12

"Left" and "right" as political concepts are from the 18th Century, and the dichotomy originally refers to the dispute between supporters (right) and opponents (left) of feudalism, so it cannot be validly extrapolated to anythihing older than feudalism. Spartakus or Tiberius Gracchus weren't leftists. Left and Right as we understand (though quite often we try to misunderstand rather than understand) them aren't metaphysical principles; they are purely historical realities, utterly dependent of the development of the actual forces of society.

The terms were invented by supporters of an absolutist monarchy, so unsurprisingly they used the term "right" to describe themselves, and "left" to describe their enemies. There are only two sides of our bodies, relative to the antero-posterior plane, left and right, and it stands to reason that when two humans face each other - as the president of an assembly regarding the ordinary members - that the left side of one corresponds to the right side of the other. So if the friends of the president stand to his right, he may call them the "right" of the assembly, taking himself as a standard. If they sit to his left, on the other hand, he might also call them the "right" of the assembly, now taking the benches as the standard. So, whatever the actual topographic position of supporters and opponents, the political "right" can call itself the right side, with all ideological load that this carries.

The "political compass" seems to be an instrument of political propaganda for the Libertarian Party, US. It attempts to frame political positions in a way that the best aspects of each "left" (ie, the Democrats, which in most of the world would be considered centrists at most) and "right" (ie, the Republicans) seem to match the Libertarian policies. It ignores the brutal fact that no serious political force embraces such apparently obviously excellent positions - which is probably best explained by the fact that the "best" aspects of what they call "left" are intimately intertwinned with what they consider the "worst" of that same left, and do not mingle well with what they consider the "best" aspects of what they call "right". Indeed, there is no reason why the political field should be bidimensional instead of uni- or tridimensional, nor is there any reason why, even if we agree that it is bidimensional, that it should take the form of a perfect square instead of an elongated rombus or rectangle.

The quote you give from the Dao De Jing doesn't seem to be about politics at all. It seems to describe complementary, not opposite, aspects of life.

ETA: an alternative - and less apologetic of conservatives - terminology from the same period, called the "left" "mountain" (for its members sat in the backbenches, which are in a higher position in an amphitheatre-like chamber) and the "right" "swamp".

  • Thanks for your answer. The Dao De Jing is also about politics. To tell a sovereign not to use his army is a political counsel. And there's a continuum between "complementary" and "opposite", mostly when the DDJ agrees so strongly with today's use of political left/right. What you call "metaphysical principles" may just be some science you still don't know. Like biology. For instance, much of what Schopenhauer wrote in "Metaphysics of Love" became demonstrated by ethologists and evolutionary psychologists.
    – Rodrigo
    Dec 2, 2016 at 4:59
  • Maybe you'll like this article: thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/…. If the alpha male, in so many animal groups, eats the best piece and get laid with the best females, then to raise the power of the alpha male and his allies is what we call right-wing-politics. To lower the power of the alpha male and his allies, so that the lower ranking individuals can get a slightly better share -- that's the so-called left-wing-politics (Pan troglodytes is the "right-wing chimpanzee", Pan paniscus the "left-wing").
    – Rodrigo
    Dec 2, 2016 at 4:59
  • And this ever existing opposites -- which sometimes complement each other (mostly in the reign of an enlightened despot, or an enlightened taoist sovereign), other times declare war -- this opposites look so deeply built into our DNA, that anyone who thinks "biology is too easy" will probably call it "metaphysical".
    – Rodrigo
    Dec 2, 2016 at 4:59
  • @Rodrigo - I never said that the Dao De Jing isn't about politics. I said that the precise quote you gave seems to be not about politics, and it definitely does not counsel the sovereign on what to do with his army. Dec 2, 2016 at 10:03
  • @Rodrigo - And these absurds about alpha-males are pseudo-science at best, and right-wing ideology at worst. Dec 2, 2016 at 10:06

The first known "Political Parties" or "factions" as they were first termed that I am aware of were noted during the ratfication of the US Constitution. "Federalist" Party members were pro Constitution and "anti-Federalist" were against...and this was noted with some alarm during the ratification process as "office seeking" was seen as ungentlemanly. In other words one should asked first before one "becomes President" for example. Alexander Hamilton is the first and only proponent of "ambition" as the pre-requisite for Governing...meaning "do not ask but take." He actually wanted George Washington to be elected President for life in his only appearance before the Constitutional Committee meeting...in secret interestingly...in Philadelphia in 1789. This idea was never considered...but certainly Hamilton's "men of ambition" future was born out...and with it poltical parties.

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